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Film Review: Good Work

Good Work: Masters of the Building Arts, a 65-minute documentary video on the building arts, highlights the work at the National Cathedral.
Good Work: Masters of the Building Arts

Good Work: Masters of the Building Arts; directed by Marjorie Hunt and Paul Wagner.

Good Work: Masters of the Building Arts

Directed by Marjorie Hunt and Paul Wagner

65 minutes

A craftsman works--between blueprint and finished product--with creativity and ability, to make a building a piece of art. In the documentary, Good Work: Masters of the Building Arts, co-directors Marjorie Hunt and Paul Wagner celebrate the hardworking craftspeople whose hands create our nation’s monuments. Through wood, stone, plaster, brick, metal, glass, clay, and paint, skilled workers shape raw materials and generations of knowledge to turn vision into reality.

Good Work: Masters of the Building Arts, a 65-minute documentary celebrating the artisans in America’s building trades, was born out of a living exhibition at the 2001 Smithsonian Folklife Festival of the same name. It was produced in association with the American Institute of Architects, the Associated General Contractors of America, the National Building Museum, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Through profiles of eight master craftspeople, the film encapsulates what it means to be a modern day traditional building artisan. Take for example stained-glass artisan Dieter Goldkuhle and adobe craftsman Albert Parra. Exposed to the elements under the New Mexican sun, Albert restores a traditional morada, or chapter house, of one of 80 surviving Penitente fraternities. With the help of other members of the community, he uses mud plaster to mend the building’s façade. This is the traditional method and requires Parra and his team to return year after year.

Sure, they could have a stucco company come in, cement the whole thing, and be done with it. This, Perra says, would cause the 300-year-old building to die. His annual maintenance is a “journey of faith” that causes the structure to breathe with the seasons and provide greater connectivity to the people it serves.

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In contrast to Perra’s community effort is the solitary stained-glass work of Dieter Goldkuhle. Having worked with the National Cathedral for over 37 years, on over 100 windows, Dieter approaches his detailed work with enthusiasm and respect. Handling every step of the process, from cutting to placement, he views his craft as a total expression of himself, expounding on the subject with contagious pride. “It can be smoldering, it can be subdued, it can be brilliant,” Dieter says of the Cathedral’s stained glass, “by revolving around the sun in a 24-hour cycle, it has a tie to the universe, to the solar system…to me that is the spirituality of a stained-glass window.” Dieter passed away before the film’s release in 2011.

Watching Good Work at Washington National Cathedral, my appreciation for the unsung artists soared like the cathedral spires they restore. Those who have bent metal, sculpted stone, and laid foundations will outlive us all through their work and will awe future generations. Through their stories, this viewer understands that these artisans work with pride and passion. Skilled and steadfast, they are dedicated to continuing the traditional methods of their craft.

The film itself is a carefully crafted passion project from co-directors Marjorie Hunt and Paul Wagner. The duo has documented craftsmen before in the Academy Award winning documentary The Stone Carvers. Expanding on themes first sculpted in Stone Carvers, Good Work places builders front and center.

“People generally aren’t aware,” says Hunt in a panel discussion after the screening, “of the important role the craftsperson plays in the architectural project. A lot of times people think of the architect or the building itself and lost somewhere in the equation are the craftspeople who bring it to life through their knowledge of materials and tools, their quest for mastery.”

The film successfully shines a spotlight on the too often overlooked artisan; it also doesn’t shy away from the subject of the industry’s future. Stone cutters, glass blowers, iron forgers, wood carvers…these are skills and crafts that evolve through families, refined by the soul of each practitioner. Good Work clearly illustrates the importance for future generations to preserve handcrafted traditional building materials and methods, and by simply showing the pleasure and pride the craftspeople take in their work, is an inspirational call to the craft.

The video is available for $24.95 from Amazon at

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